The Yoga of Pleasure
by Sally Kempton
Walking a spiritual path doesn’t always have to mean challenge and difficulty—the simple enjoyment of life is also allowed.
My friend Sandra, who just went through a year of inner work and intense personal change, e-mailed me recently to say that for the last month or so she’s been feeling, as she put it, "fabulous." In fact, she said she’s having such a great time that she’s starting to worry. "Do you think it’s OK to just enjoy this?" she asked me. "Do you think it means my practice is shallow?"
After I’d reassured her, I found myself contemplating the issues behind her question. It’s a strange fact that many of us actually do believe that our practice is more "real" when we’re having a hard time. It’s not just our Western Judeo-Christian heritage, with its tradition of asceticism, that makes us believe that hard work and emotional turmoil are somehow more "spiritual" than pleasure. Nor is it simply the hangover that some of us still carry from emotionally deprived childhoods. The truth is, most of the classical Eastern yogic traditions also seem to hold a not-so-subtle bias against pleasure—a belief that pleasure and enjoyment are distracting, and that the spiritual process is humming along most strongly when we’re feeling most uncomfortable.
Connoisseurs of Wonder
Not so in the Tantric traditions. One reason I love the yogis of Kashmir Shaivism is that they considered beauty, delight, and pleasure to be doorways into higher states of consciousness. It isn’t that these yogis were hedonists; in fact, they tended to be extraordinarily disciplined and discriminating. Rather, they were connoisseurs of the state of wonder. The Tantric yogis lived in the felt realization that God’s absolute awareness and joy is the source of all our experience. Even more important, they believed that the human senses are actually the means through which God enjoys the world. So when we can fully savor a pleasurable moment—a sunset or a painting, a great movie or concert, a delicious bite of food—we are holding open a door for God to enjoy through us.
Some of us are born knowing this. For others, it’s an awareness that takes practice.
From the Object to the Source
The key to practicing the yoga of pleasure and enjoyment? Learn how to turn your awareness inside—away from the object to the source of enjoyment. Instead of losing yourself in the particular food, movie, or person, instead of believing that your joy comes from the cashmere sweater that you managed to score for only $40, you turn your attention towards the sensation of satisfaction itself. The secret of turning pleasure into yoga is to focus on the feeling of pleasure and its inner source, rather than on the object that’s triggered your enjoyment.
This is a wonderful awareness to hold when you’re walking in nature. But I also love to do it while I’m shopping or at a party. Peering into shop windows, trying on clothes, looking over the array of titles in a bookstore, I’ll notice how my senses move around hungrily, trying to take in the sights and sounds that draw my attention, to touch them, own them in some way. Then, if I’m attentive, I can often turn my attention away from the object for a moment and experience the pleasure or excitement just as it is, recognizing that the object is the trigger for the inner feeling.
You might try this at a party or other social gathering—give yourself moments when you just savor the taste of the food in your mouth; turn to the inner feeling of enjoyment in your body as you dance; engage with the vibratory resonance and emotional power of music. Let your mind dwell as fully as possible on the sensation of each taste, touch, or sound without letting yourself reach blindly towards the next one. This pure focus on the experience of pleasure is a powerful form of open-eyed meditation, especially if we can keep recognizing that the source of the feeling is inside, not in the object of satisfaction.
Admittedly, this is challenging. We’re conditioned to focus our senses on the object of pleasure, and then consume more and more tastes or sights or touches. But, of course, this is how we get exhausted, overstimulated, and hungover. The yogic approach to pleasure will actually give us energy instead of tiring us out, because when we focus on tasting the delight, say, of one exquisite chocolate, one beautiful song, one gorgeous face, our mind stops for a moment, and we can actually take rest in ourselves.
Full Engagement with the Moment
The power of beauty and pleasure—whether the beauty of a human face, the pleasure of a good meal or a work of art or an ocean—is that it arrests us. The distraction and restlessness that often cuts us off from full engagement with the moment temporarily dissolves, and we are fully present—our consciousness literally aroused by the experience of something beautiful or delicious. That moment of inner arrest or arousal, the "aha!" we feel, is a realization of the state that yogic sages call the bliss of wonder. It’s the meeting point of sensory and spiritual experience. It’s both the fruit of and the avenue into a fully awakened life.
You might try practicing this subtle and refined awareness whenever you see or smell or touch something delightful, especially if it’s something that arrests you. Notice the sensation of wonder or appreciation or pleasure. Feel it as fully as you can. Then pause for a moment and acknowledge that this feeling comes from inside you. See if you can simply rest in the sensation of pleasure itself, relishing it, feeling content with it, almost as if you are removing the object of pleasure. Simply enjoy the sensation. You might also take a moment to recognize that when you do this practice, you are opening to what Tantric teachings call the Divine Self, the joyful Creative Intelligence that not only witnesses your life but actually sees and tastes and hears through your senses.
Reflections of Inner Joy
If you make a habit of this practice, you’ll probably notice how it begins to refine your perceptions, so that over time you find yourself experiencing the life around you with much greater subtlety. The inner experience you’ve cultivated not only becomes a resting place, it begins to filter your experience so that you see how everything that exists has its own beauty.
One of the great Tantric sages, Abhinavagupta, says that when we remove the "obstruction" of focusing on the object we’re enjoying, "we gain attentive Hearts, and that is supreme bliss." The Tantric sages wrote a lot about this phenomenon—how their vision had shifted so that the world no longer seemed obstructive and "other" but had become a reflection of their inner joy.
What we’re doing when we practice the yoga of pleasure is cultivating the awakened outlook these sages experienced. Of course, to live all the time in the experience of the world as bliss marks a radically advanced stage of enlightenment. Yet, each time we draw ourselves into the heart to savor external experience as an aspect of our own self, we can turn a moment of pleasure into a doorway to ecstasy.
Sally Kempton is one of today’s most innovative spiritual teachers. Drawing from more than 30 years of practice and teaching, including 20 years as a monastic in the Siddha Yoga tradition, she has a gift for bringing transformative insight to the questions facing contemporary seekers. She is author of the groundbreaking meditation book The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience (published under her monastic name Swami Durgananda) and writes the "Wisdom" column for Yoga Journal.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.